At 25, Utah's Gritt Hofmann may be the oldest NCAA gymnast out there, but even as she nears the end of a long gymnastics career, she learned something about herself on balance beam at the April 18 regional in Michigan.
Already making more of her fifth year of eligibility than most people including herself could have imagined, she found an inner aggressiveness on balance beam that she never knew was there.
She scored 9.85 to help the Utes overcome two falls in the first part of their beam set that nearly kept them from qualifying for the NCAA championships at Oregon State on Thursday through Saturday.
Utah has always qualified, but it was a close call this time until strong beam routines from Nina Kim, Hofmann, Nicolle Ford and Ashley Postell, the former world beam champ who saved herself from a fall only through great determination.
"It helped me actually to go out aggressive. Usually I don't go that aggressive," said Hofmann. "Usually it's more I try to stay on rather than really show off and hit everything you can.
"I kind of got mad. It was almost like getting mad 'No, I don't want to go home. I want to do this.' "
"Gritt was just like, 'This is my last year. I wasn't going to let it end at regionals.' She was like, 'There's no way I was going to go wrong,' " said Ford, who discussed their feelings afterward.
Ford said she was "like sick-to-my-stomach nervous," but that kind of thing often helps her.
Coach Greg Marsden knew about Hofmann's determination.
"(Ford) told me she talked to Gritt, and Gritt said she did not come back for a last year not to make it to nationals," Marsden said. "There was no way she was going to come off that balance beam."
Said Ford: "Usually Gritt's the quiet one, but this is her last year for sure and she knows what she wants and she's on a mission, and she wasn't going to let herself be part of any problems."
That mad mind-set also helps Kim, a freshman. Kim has fallen just once on beam this season and has scored as well as 9.90.
Ford, a junior, always gives Kim a pep talk before beam. "And it's usually not really a nice pep talk where I'd say, 'You can do this.' It's more I get in Nina's face and get her mad, just to know she doesn't want anything bad to happen either, and, 'We're not going to let them move past us.'
"I've learned that works with Nina."
Said Kim: "She always gives me a talk, tells me to get mad. It really helps because she's an upperclassman and knows what's going on. It gives me security."
The Utes know even before Thursday's afternoon team preliminary round starts in Corvallis that beam will again be a key.
By luck of a blind NCAA draw, they start on it, the one event where gymnasts' nervous pre-meet energy can be harmful because it requires such precision.
But this Ute team often thrives on that kind of pressure. Whether it takes being mad or just ultra-competitive, like Ford and Postell, nerves can be a positive.
"Nerves seem to work in her favor, just like Ashley and me," said Ford of Kim. "That's something we kind of feed off, and I'm slowly learning that Nina's just like that."
Adds Hofmann: "If I keep that feeling that I had in mind and almost get mad before my routine, I think that will help me. Go big, and don't hold back."
Starting on beam? "Get it over with. I really don't mind," said Kim. "That's what we've got, and we're going to have to deal with it."
"You've got to see the positive in it," said Hofmann, "and use it to our advantage. Beam is our strongest event, and if we have a good start-off, then it puts us in a good mood for the rest of the meet. I think that's a good thing to start on beam."
"We definitely have a strong lineup on beam, so it can work to our advantage if we all hit," she said. "Start off with a good foot."
Marsden said some of Utah's regional mistakes came from being aggressive, such as Hofmann stepping out of bounds on floor, which associate coach Megan Marsden said made her mad at herself.
"Those are the risks you're going to take," said Greg Marsden, glad to see everybody willing to push it at crunch time. Hofmann's floor routine jams a lot of unusual difficulty into the last pass. "You could do a double tuck and not go out of bounds and have plenty of room, but if she does punch-front/double tuck and takes that a little long or is moving on the landing and takes a step back, she's going to be out of bounds."They're doing everything they can. You take the risk in hopes that you receive the reward."